You can see why “No Country
for Old Men” won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
And you really should; with some caveats, of course.
To begin with, you will need a fairly high tolerance
for violence and bloodshed, a requirement to be qualified below.
If you have an artistic passion for the wide-open
spaces of the Great Southwest à la John Ford, you will be more
And it won't hurt if you have nerves of steel.
I saw “No Country for Old Men” with three friends,
and we were all whimpering by the time it was over. Not because we had
been bludgeoned by gore and noise and frantic action in the way of most
current thrillers; quite the opposite – this is one of the quietest
movies you will see all year, and its silences are devastating.
In fact, music on the sound track occurs so seldom,
and so softly, that you're relieved when you hear it, only to
remember that it means something really bad is about to happen, which
is one of the ways the movie keeps you off-balance.
And, as implied above, the violence is infrequent
and understated when compared with the usual overkill, so to speak, of
a lot of current thrillers.
But, oh lord, the menace. In one leisurely cut, the
Bad Guy walks out of a house and pauses calmly on the porch to inspect
the soles of his boots, and you know something really horrible has just
I call him the Bad Guy for this reason: this movie
is a Western, and although it takes place in 1980 it has all the
elements of the genre. It has the right setting, with buttes and mesas
and sagebrush, and deserted little West Texas towns. It has the
misguided Almost-Good-Guy (Josh Brolin) who tries to escape with the
money, and his wife (Kelly Macdonald), who is feisty enough to gain our
sympathy. There's Woody Harrelson as the bounty hunter who's way
over-qualified; and there's the slow-talkin' dead-pan sheriff, who
refuses to carry a gun, and who gets some of the best lines in that
slow-talkin' Texas way.
“This is a mess, ain't it, Sheriff?” says the
Hapless Deputy, surveying the carnage of a drug deal gone wrong.
“If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here,”
says the Sheriff quietly.
Forty years ago, only Henry Fonda could have played
the Sheriff. (Can you imagine Kirk Douglas delivering that line? You
can, but it will sound pretty strangled.)
Fortunately, we have Tommy Lee Jones to play the
Sheriff, and to continue his roster of poker-faced, unflappable Good
Guys (think “Men In Black”) that have never yet descended into an
(If you don't know what I mean by an acting wheeze,
think Alan Rickman and his Murmur of Quiet Menace. He was fine as Snape
in “Harry Potter,” but his Judge Turpin in “Sweeney Todd” was just More
Of Same. Snap out of it, Alan.)
And now to the Bad Guy.
I call him the Bad Guy although the actor has a name
(Javier Bardem) and the character also has a name (Anton Chigurh).
I call him the Bad Guy because he's pretty much the
personification of evil, and he has out-done Jack Palance with the cool
black hat, and he has scared the living daylights out of me and my
friends. No ranting here, no psychotic leers, no temper tantrums, no
speaking in rhymed couplets, no flashy methods (thought the pneumatic
bolt is pretty scary for a while). Just a quiet, unstoppable guy who is
absolutely dead behind the eyes.
Javier Bardem comes from a distinguished family of
Spanish actors. He won the Oscar for Supporting Actor for this
role, and he deserves it just for showing how much menace you can evoke
by doing almost nothing.
Did you ever read any books by Geoffrey Household?
In the 50s and 60s he wrote quiet little British thrillers such as
“Rogue Male” and “A Time to Kill.” In 1968 he wrote “Dance of the
Dwarfs,” which was bizarre in the extreme. It concerned some horrible
unsolved murders in the pampas of South America, and it turns out (I
wager you'll never read it, so I'll spoil it for you, which is too bad,
because it's an extremely creepy read) that the villains are a colony
of giant, five-foot weasels that, once they get your scent, Do Not Give
Up, though it's over hundreds of miles.
Bardem's Bad Guy is like that. You can run, but he
will smell you out.